12 March 2016

Creating an Adventuring Party

'You all meet in a tavern...' so runs the cliched beginning of a great many roleplaying games. Even those that aren't set in a fantasy setting still have the PCs meeting up in a similar location (a dive bar for Shadowrun, just as an example). This trope is so overused and so well known that there are counter-tropes starting to show up. One example is the Giant in the Playground (the website where the Order of the Stick webcomic is hosted) forums, where some participants have sig files that read '78% of DM's [sic] started their first campaign in a tavern. If you're one of the 22% that didn't, copy and paste this into your signature.'

I honestly don't remember how I started my first campaign. I'm not even sure what my first campaign was. It may have been that game of TSR's Marvel Super Heroes. But I could be wrong.

Regardless, even if the adventuring party didn't start in a tavern, the existence of the trope points to a specific phenomenon within the gaming world: PCs who begin the campaign as strangers. This is by far the most common way for games to begin. For most of my early gaming experiences, this was the norm. In fact, it was so much the norm that when my gaming group started playing Werewolf: The Apocalypse, we ignored the pack rules.

For those not familiar with the game, or with pack rules, it works like this: players create characters who are part of a pack (wolves being pack animals, after all). Players were expected to spend some of their character creation points on the Totem background, and the entire pack pools all points so spent, and uses them collectively to purchase a spirit to serve as that pack's totem. All members of a pack receive the magical/spiritual benefits of having that totem.

Prior to that time, my group always wrote up individual characters, then the GM was tasked with the unenviable chore of finding a way to not only put these characters together, but to somehow coerce them into following the story hooks placed before them. Given that players often wrote characters of vastly different personality, it was a frequently monumental obstacle to get them to co-operate. More than one campaign was a non-starter, as the characters (and usually, subsequently, the players as well) became increasingly hostile towards one another.

I still recall the time one of my circle of friends said he was going to make us use the pack rules. We all created characters separately, and then attempted to meld them into a pack with a single goal and a unanimously agreed upon pack totem spirit. It did not go well (in fact, it was as a result of that experience that I ended up creating Jurgi Deathbringer).

For a time after that, I still maintained that games were more fun if players got to create exactly the character they wanted without having to clear it with the other players first. But one day, I realised that the intra-party conflict caused by having such antagonistic characters more than outweighed the supposed lack of creativity spawned by limiting your character possibilities to those that would work within a specific group. So I tried it with a group. The players chose to play characters who had served together in a unit in Operation Desert Storm. Then I tried it with another group. The players this time chose to be residents of the same boarding house. And I tried it again with a third group. This one chose to be a troupe of travelling actors.

And I realised that, although the characters were somewhat more limited in the characters they created, they were having just as much fun working together to create the theme for the party itself as they were generating characters. This only accentuated the enjoyment brought about by the lack of internal strife.

I've talked about this topic before, but I wanted to expand upon it. The important thing here is to let the players decide for themselves what connection they have, then trust them to create characters within that connected group. Some other party themes that players in my games have used include:
  • Faculty at a university
  • Employees of a branch of the Citizen's Advice Bureau
  • Forensic Investigators
  • Members of a travelling circus
This usually is open enough that you can work the party into whatever story you already had planned without having to worry about how to get the PCs to the first story hook.

Anyway, this was something I was contemplating today, as I'm in the process of assembling a new Changeling group (a prospect about which I am very excited!). I'll leave you with that for now. Until next time,

Game on!

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